Design is a necessity, not a luxury
Today’s best businesses recognize the importance of design and enable designers to thrive within their organization. That’s not to say their design is solely in-house – many organizations continue to rely on top agencies for support. However, while an outsider’s unique point of view can provide an extra spark of inspiration or access to specialized skill sets, design is no longer something organizations can completely or even primarily outsource.
Successful companies now need design as a core in-house competency. Without it, you have no chance of reaching or delighting your customers.
From a designer’s perspective, you can gauge the importance of design in an organization by how many designers they’ve hired, what part of the business they report into, and how high up the ladder design reaches. When Capital One acquired Adaptive Path in 2014, it was rather shocking on the surface. Why would a bank buy a design company? And why would the design company agree to this, especially one with Adaptive Path’s stellar reputation and portfolio, which would have afforded them a lot of interested suitors?
In his announcement of the acquisition by Capital One, Adaptive Path’s then Chief Creative Officer shared this insight: “Somebody came along who finally, truly, seemed to get it.”
Get what exactly? Get design! Having worked at Capital One prior to this acquisition, I’ve witnessed firsthand their commitment to design from the inside, and from senior leaders. Whether it’s a headline-making show of commitment to design like the Adaptive Path acquisition, or the signals you get from an interview or a company’s org chart, there are clear indicators of how much a business prioritizes design. Look for them.
5 tips from RBCx’s approach to design excellence
At RBCx, we use design to give our individual venture businesses what we describe as an unfair advantage – top talent and best practices the typical start-up or even scale up would never have access to. We call our in-house team Strategic Design because of the breadth of services and diverse expertise we’ve brought together, from PhDs and MBAs to entrepreneurs, anthropologists, ethnographers, startup founders, authors, journalists, award-winning designers, and former leaders of top advertising agencies. We’ve won marketing and design awards, and created everything from digital ads and TV spots to out-of-home (OOH) campaigns, native apps and web applications, long-form articles and ebooks, unique standalone brands, and catchy taglines. Our work helps our portfolio of venture businesses reach millions of Canadians.
So, how did we create a strong in-house design competency? Here are five tips that outline how we approach design and create value from within:
- Get buy-in first. Work for a supportive leader or client who believes in the power of design. That support and advocacy may not be there to start. Sometimes it requires articulating the value of design. To do this, I always recommend speaking in your leader, organization, or client’s “language”. For example, if your leader or organization is focused on expense management, explain the efficiencies of in-house vs. outsourcing. If you’re dealing with an analytical manager or team, show how you’re testing and learning before spending heavily in a mass advertising campaign. Meet them where they are and show the value you can deliver in the language they’re most comfortable speaking.
- Hire the best people, and invest in them. We hire people from a wide variety of disciplines, interviewing for both IQ and EQ. I’ve always hired people who are better than me. They’re skilled in areas I’m not, have new and different experiences, and can do stuff I can only dream of doing. Hire these talented people, then do your best to lift them up while getting out of their way.
- KYC: Know Your Customer. Become the source for customer insights and start with their needs and wants before anything else. When no one knows more about your customers/users, you become incredibly valuable. When you show the initiative to listen to customer calls or conduct user research with a small group of respondents, you send the message to leaders and teammates that you’re serious about designing for your customer’s needs and are focused on achieving desired outcomes rather than just creating art for art’s sake. Use everything you learn to inform everything you design. Your work will improve and your personal value will increase.
- Be fact-based and outcome-focused. Leverage data to avoid discussions of personal likes/dislikes. Even for the most skilled designers, it’s not about what you prefer; it’s about what works. Becoming fact-based will improve the products you build and bolster your team’s confidence when it comes to creating experiences people will use and love.
- Change everything. Be flexible and open to change when change is (often) required. There’s always better tools to use – try them out. Even if you use the most trusted Design Thinking methods, be flexible and study new ways to operate that are right for your team. If a design, tool, or process worked yesterday, that doesn’t mean it works today. Always learn and pivot as you work to build great products and grow your design team.
In this three-part series, I tried to start with the basics: What is design? Why does it matter? How has it changed over time, becoming smarter and more relevant to every business on the planet? And what can you do to make design a career path or core competency in your organization? But I’ve only scratched the surface.
If any of these posts resonate with you, then we share a passion for design and would probably have a wonderful time chatting it up over coffee. You may even be someone who’d be a great fit in our organization. Either way, I’m just an email or LinkedIn message away from talking design (my favourite subject). Reach out any time. Or, if you’re interested in joining our Strategic Design team in any number of roles from CX Researchers to Creative Copywriters, check out our open roles.
Want to learn more about design or how we stay on the forefront of disruption and innovation at RBCx?! Visit and bookmark RBCx.com/ideas for new content from me and many other leaders in our organization.